Two NHL teams have fired their coaches. Which bench bosses are next in line to take NHL jobs should vacancies appear? THN presents Replacement Coach Power Rankings.
The writing was on the wall. It’s since been wiped clean by the custodian.
Goodbye Paul MacLean. Goodbye Dallas Eakins. The Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers were the first teams this season to fire their coaches. Though both have filled their positions – Ottawa with Dave Cameron, Edmonton with the Craig MacTavish/Todd Nelson Sith Lord apprenticeship – axing MacLean and Eakins got the hockey community chattering excitedly about best and biggest names next in line for head coaching gigs.
With that, I present the Replacement Coach Power Rankings. Excluded from the list are any NHL head coaches currently employed but nearing the end of their contracts (i.e. Mike Babcock). That leaves (a) unemployed coaches; (b) Gainfully employed coaches in other leagues (AHL, KHL, etc.); (c) active NHL assistant or associate coaches.
15. Mark Messier/Wayne Gretzky/”The band is getting back together!”
Don’t laugh. Hey. Let me finish! Nelson has only been promised interim duties, leaving the door open for what Edmonton loves…incestuous leadership. Why would the Oilers turn to Messier, who has no coaching experience, or Gretzky, who struggled in his first stint with the Coyotes? I’ll steal a phrase from colleague Ryan Kennedy: “Because Oilers.”
14. Larry Robinson
The San Jose Sharks are a respectable 17-11-4, but they’re prone to peaks and valleys every year, and the Sword of Damocles taunted Todd McLellan all off-season. Robinson walked away from head coaching in 2005 because the stress was taxing his health. But if, say, the Sharks swoon and McLellan gets axed later in the winter, could GM Doug Wilson ask ‘Big Bird’ to take over for a few months?
13. Guy Boucher
He had success in spurts with the Tampa Bay Lightning, steering them to the conference final in 2011. He’s a master motivator with a master’s degree in sports psychology. Boucher has SC Bern humming along nicely in the Swiss League. He could give a demoralized team a shot in the arm.
12. Derek Laxdal
It’s a steady climb upward for Laxdal, who won an ECHL crown after years fielding dominant Idaho Steelheads teams, then won multiple WHL crowns fielding dominant Edmonton Oil Kings teams, and capped it off with a Memorial Cup triumph last spring. Laxdal replaced Willie Desjardins with the reigning AHL champs in Texas. So far, his Stars have been mediocre, but an AHL insider who spoke to THN believes Laxdal is already someone NHL brass will watch closely. He may be a year away, however.
11. Steve Spott
Spott is experienced and experienced at many different levels. He spent half a decade leading the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, he flourished in a one-year stint with the Toronto Marlies, he’s coached the Canadian world junior squad and he’s cutting his teeth in the NHL with the Blue and White now. What’s left for him to do?
10. Jared Bednar
Bednar isn’t a household name, but he took the South Carolina Stingrays to an ECHL championship in 2008-09 and he’s worked in the AHL as a head or assistant coach with three different teams since. He has the Springfield Falcons leading their division despite a turbulent year in which they’ve constantly had to send players up to injury-ravaged NHL parent Columbus.
“He’s pretty well respected and he’s a young guy (at 42),” said the AHL insider. “He’s somebody who ultimately would be seen as a rising star in coaching in this league.”
9. John Tortorella
‘Torts’ isn’t really done, right? He can still get plenty of mileage out of his 2004 Stanley Cup with Tampa and helming some excellent, shot-blocking-maven New York Ranger teams. In time those feats will overshadow his subsequent one-year flameout in Vancouver. Jay Feaster said it best in this interview with the immortal Stan Fischler:
“I don’t have any doubt that at some point in time, a team is going to be struggling and a team is going to need some discipline, some structure, and a general manager is going to say, ‘this is the guy that can provide it.’ “
8. Luke Richardson
Some may rank Richardson higher on their lists, and plenty wondered why Ottawa didn’t tap him on the shoulder when it fired MacLean last week. Richardson is an excellent NHL coaching candidate but might not want to go there just yet.
“I think Luke has not been in any hurry to get to the National Hockey League as a head coach because his daughter is playing at Cornell, and he coaches at Binghamton, and I think it’s really convenient for him,” the AHL insider said.
Morgan Richardson is a junior. After her she completes her senior year, perhaps we’ll see her dad bolt for the NHL.
7. John Hynes
He’s an accomplished veteran of the AHL, having coached Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to four straight dominant seasons. He’s taken the farm Penguins to the second, second, third and third round of the Calder Cup playoffs as their head coach. He went down to the wire with Mike Johnston for the Pittsburgh vacancy over the summer.
“I’m actually quite surprised he hasn’t had an opportunity to coach in the National League,” the AHL insider said.
6. Jacques Martin
Defense wins championships and Martin is one of the best at building lockdown systems. He’s spent a few seasons with the Penguins and works for them as an advisor right now, but it’s been long enough, and he’s been successful enough, that he’s due for another crack as a head coach.
5. John Stevens
The Los Angeles Kings sent a message when they promoted Stevens from assistant to associate head coach. What was that message? That he’s Darryl Sutter’s successor? That he’s too valuable to lose, so they needed to bump up his pay and prestige to retain him? Either way, the optics are good, and Stevens is a prime candidate to re-enter the head coaching ranks.
4. Mike Keenan
‘Iron Mike’ conquered the KHL. The last time we spoke with him, he insisted the NHL hadn’t come calling, but some team has to be temped sooner or later. And a Gagarin Cup on the mantle is the perfect excuse to nab him.
3. Jeff Blashill
Keep a close eye on the Grand Rapid Griffins head coach and Calder Cup champ. The parent club Red Wings signed Blashill to a three-year extension in June. General manager Ken Holland knew what he was doing. He said he denied other teams permission to negotiate with Blashill. He opted to pay Blashill rather than lose him, in a situation the AHL insider compares to the Leafs with Eakins a few years back. With Babcock unsigned, Blashill is the insurance policy. He’s a near lock to coach in the NHL next season, with Detroit if Babcock leaves or somewhere else if Babcock stays.
“I think he’s been held in case they don’t sign Babcock, and if they do sign Babcock, I think in fairness, they would allow him to be a candidate elsewhere,” the insider said, adding Blashill “is probably the leading candidate in the AHL to be in the NHL.”
2. Paul MacLean
The Walrus will heal over Christmas after Ottawa ousted him last week, but general perception – around the league and especially in the THN office – is that he’s a good coach who won’t stay unemployed long. Even though Sens GM Bryan Murray publicly expressed his distaste for MacLean’s handling of his players, there’s no denying MacLean did a lot with a little in Ottawa. What might he do with a better collection of talent? Some team in need will want find out soon enough.
1. Dan Bylsma
Babcock is the most talked about coach in the league, but as long as Babcock has at least a chance to remain a Wing, Bylsma remains the belle of the ball. He grew stale in Pittsburgh but is the only coach to win a Stanley Cup in Steeltown since 1992. He’s the best ready-made replacement should another team fire its bench boss during the season. Bylsma won his Cup as a mid-season savior. MacLean likely wants a breather and the AHL candidates on this list are less of the promote-like-Todd-Nelson variety and more the types who might change organizations altogether in the summer.
OTHER NAMES TO CONSIDER
Travis Green is still new to head coaching at the pro level, but all he’s done is win. The WHL’s Portland Winterhawks dominated when he filled in during 2012-13, and he has the Utica Comets sizzling in the AHL. Claude Noel and Ron Wilson left bad taste in our mouths after their most recent NHL stints but have lots of experience. Ulf Samuelsson has popped up in rumors on and off and has spent years as an NHL assistant coach, but he’s never been a head coach.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin